C 2008 Cambridge University Press doi:10.

1017/S1366728908003398
Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 11 (2), 2008, 225–243 

The effect of linguistic
proficiency, age of second
language acquisition, and
length of exposure to a new
cultural environment on
bilinguals’ divergent thinking∗

225

A NATO L I Y V. K H A R K H U R I N
American University of Sharjah

The study argues that, in addition to advantages in conscious attention-demanding processing, bilinguals may also exhibit
enhanced unconscious divergent thinking. To investigate this issue, the performance of Russian–English bilingual immigrants
and English monolingual native speakers was compared on the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults, which is a traditional
assessment tool of divergent thinking. The study reveals bilinguals’ superiority on divergent thinking tasks that require the
ability to simultaneously activate and process multiple unrelated concepts from distant categories. Divergent thinking was
facilitated by bilinguals’ proficiency in two languages, the age of acquisition of these languages and the length of exposure to
the new cultural settings that accompanies the acquisition of a new language. A specific architecture of bilingual memory in
which two lexicons are mutually linked to the shared conceptual system is theorized to facilitate the functioning of the
language mediated concept activation, thereby encouraging bilinguals’ divergent thinking performance.

During the past few decades research in the area of
cognitive development of bilinguals has made tremendous
progress and there is evidence supporting the notion that
speaking two languages extends rather than diminishes the
bilingual individual’s cognitive capacities (e.g., Hakuta
and Diaz, 1985; Ricciardelli, 1992a; Bialystok, 2005).
A significant contribution to research in this area has
been made by Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues, who
were able to demonstrate that bilingual children have
an advantage over their monolingual counterparts when
it comes to cognitive tasks employing certain executive
processes (e.g., Bialystok, 1988, 2001; Bialystok, Craik,
Grady, Chau, Ishii, Gunji and Pantev, 2005). Moreover,
Bialystok, Craik, Klein and Viswanathan (2004) have
shown that this cognitive advantage persists into
adulthood, assisting bilingual adults to offset age-related
losses in executive processes. Specifically, bilinguals were
found to benefit from control processes including selective
attention to relevant aspects of a problem, inhibition
of attention to misleading information, and switching
* The research reported in this article was partially supported by a grant
from the National Science Foundation (No. BCS-0414013). I thank
Aneta Pavlenko for her very helpful comments on an earlier version
of this manuscript, Kim Heng Chen for his help with the statistical
analysis of the data, and Annie Crookes and Richard Gassan for the
proofreading of the manuscript. The paper has also benefited greatly
from suggestions made by two anonymous reviewers.

between competing alternatives. These benefits were
explained by bilinguals’ extensive practice with two active
language systems during which they constantly have to
focus on one language, inhibit another language, or switch
between the languages (Bialystok et al., 2005). It was
argued that due to such cross-linguistic practice, bilinguals
exercise crucial cognitive skills that enhance the problemsolving abilities that require attentional control in order to
ignore or inhibit misleading cues (Bialystok, 2001).
These studies show that bilingualism may have a
constructive influence on conscious processing, which
requires both a focus of attention and an inhibition
of misleading cues. However, the positive influence of
bilingualism on human cognition seems to extend beyond
conscious functioning. A number of studies investigating
the relationship between bilingualism and creativity
(see Ricciardelli, 1992b, for an overview) provide
indirect evidence that bilingualism may also have an
influence on unconscious automatic cognitive processing
that requires no attentional control, such as divergent
thinking. This study reports bilinguals’ advantages on
a number of supposed creativity tasks. However, these
creativity assessments specifically measure divergent
thinking rather than creativity as a whole.
Following Guilford (1967), divergent thinking is
defined as a process which involves a broad search
for information and the generation of numerous novel
alternative answers to problems. Divergent thinking

Address for correspondence:
Anatoliy V. Kharkhurin, Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah, P.O. Box 26666, Sharjah, UAE
akharkhurin@aus.edu

226

Anatoliy V. Kharkhurin

occurs in a mental state where attention is defocused
(e.g., Mendelsohn, 1976; Kasof, 1997) and thought is
associative (e.g., Koestler, 1964; Mednick and Mednick,
1967; Ward, Smith and Vaid, 1997). Therefore, an
automatic spreading activation mechanism triggers a large
number of simultaneous mental representations. This
spreading activation mechanism establishes associations
that link concepts from distant categories. Thus, divergent
thinking can be assumed to be an unconscious ability to
simultaneously activate and process a large number of
often unrelated concepts from distant categories. Guilford
associated the properties of divergent thinking with
four main characteristics: fluency (the ability to rapidly
produce a large number of ideas or solutions to a problem);
flexibility (the capacity to consider a variety of approaches
to a problem simultaneously); elaboration (the ability to
think through the details of an idea and carry it out); and
originality (the tendency to produce ideas different from
those of most other people).
Although divergent thinking appears to be an important
component of creative behavior (Lubart, 2000), many
creativity researchers refrain from perceiving this process
as identical to creativity (e.g., Hocevar, 1981; Amabile,
1996; Sternberg and O’Hara, 1999). It is generally
assumed that divergent thinking creates a new plane
of thought on which original and novel ideas might
be generated (e.g., Mednick, 1962; Koestler, 1968;
Rothenberg, 1996), but creative performance itself
depends on the contribution of other processes as well
(Guilford and Christensen, 1973). Despite the ongoing
question over the validity of equating divergent thinking
with creative thought, most studies of bilinguals have used
divergent thinking (DT) tests (e.g., Remote Associates
Test, Mednick and Mednick, 1967; Torrance Test of
Creative Thinking, TTCT, Torrance, 1966) as a measure
of creative performance. Specifically, the TTCT was the
standard assessment of creative thinking in the studies
that reported bilinguals’ advantages on a variety of
creativity traits such as fluency (e.g., Carringer, 1974;
Ricciardelli, 1992a), flexibility (e.g., Carringer, 1974;
Konaka, 1997), elaboration (e.g., Srivastava and Khatoon,
1980), and originality (e.g., Okoh, 1980; Konaka, 1997).
Clearly, these assessment criteria have addressed the
main characteristics of divergent thinking as defined by
Guilford (1967). Therefore, the first goal of the present
study is to assess the hypothesis that bilingualism has an
effect on unconscious divergent thinking.
The second goal of the study is to examine the factors
in bilingual development that may facilitate divergent
thinking. One of the key problems in bilingualism research
is to provide a reliable assessment of bilingualism. Many
studies suffer from a lack of control over participants’
degree of language proficiency, their age of second
language acquisition, and the circumstances under which
this language was acquired (Lemmon and Goggin, 1989).

It is entirely possible that the inconsistency in the findings
in this area of research can be attributed to a failure to
control for these factors. The research in bilingualism and
first (L1) and second (L2) language acquisition indicates
the importance of at least three major factors in bilingual
development relating to bilinguals’ cross-linguistic and
cross-cultural experiences: bilinguals’ proficiency in two
languages, age of acquisition of these languages, and
extent of exposure to the cultural settings in which these
languages were acquired.
Bilinguals’ language proficiency
The first bilingualism factor implicated in the divergent
thinking abilities of bilinguals is the level of their
proficiency in the languages they speak. Lambert
(1955) drew a distinction between two types of
bilinguals based on their degrees of relative proficiency.
Balanced bilinguals, he argued, are equally competent
in both languages, whereas dominant bilinguals speak
one language better than the other. The hypothetical
relationship between the level of language proficiency
in both languages and divergent thinking is based on a
number of empirical studies reporting the former as a
reliable predictor of bilinguals’ cognitive abilities (e.g.,
Cummins, 1976; Bialystok, 1988; Lemmon and Goggin,
1989). For example, Bialystok reported two studies in
which children differing in their level of bilingualism
were given metalinguistic problems that made demands
on either analysis of knowledge (i.e., the way in which
the language is represented in the mind) or control of
processing (i.e., the selection of information for use). She
found that fully bilingual children performed better than
partially bilingual children on tasks requiring high levels
of analysis of knowledge.
These studies suggest that the language proficiency of
bilinguals is an important contributor to their cognitive
development. The present study hypothesizes that if
bilinguals with different levels of language proficiency
show varying performance on cognitive tasks they might
also show differing patterns of performance on the
DT tasks. Similar to the studies reported above and
following Lambert’s (1955) distinction, the present study
differentiates between balanced bilinguals who are highly
proficient in both languages, unbalanced bilinguals with
one language dominating over the other, and bilinguals
with relatively poor command of both languages.
Bilinguals’ age of L2 acquisition
There is indirect evidence suggesting that the age of
L2 acquisition might also be an essential contributor
to bilinguals’ divergent thinking abilities. The important
role of this factor can be logically inferred from studies
demonstrating that certain cognitive capacities decrease

Bilinguals’ divergent thinking
with age. These findings reveal an age-related decrease
in the ability to learn paired associates (Salthouse,
1992), increased difficulty encoding new information
(Rabinowitz, Craik and Ackerman, 1982; Craik and
Jennings, 1992), reduced accuracy in recalling detail
as opposed to the broader picture (Hultsch and Dixon,
1990), and changes in working memory capacity,
cognitive processing speed, and attention (Kemper, 1992;
Kharkhurin, Kempe and Brooks, 2001). Age-related
deficiencies were also reported for implicit learning
abilities (e.g., Curran, 1997; Howard and Howard, 2001;
Fischman, 2005). The decline in cognitive functioning
can be explained to some extent by age-related changes
in cognitive structures and/or processing that occur as
the person matures. Studies with connectionist networks
provide evidence for this phenomenon (e.g., Elman, 1993;
Marchman, 1993).
If the acquisition of a new language results in certain
changes in bilingual memory (e.g., De Groot, 2000;
Pavlenko, 2005), then the age of this acquisition may
determine the specificity of these changes (e.g., Kroll
and De Groot, 1997; Brysbaert, Wijnendaele and Deyne,
2000; Silverberg and Samuel, 2004). In other words,
individuals who learn both languages early in life might
have different cognitive systems than individuals who
acquire their L2 later. For example, Kroll and De Groot
propose that late bilinguals may develop asymmetry
in lexical access, which may result in more lexical–
conceptual connections from L1 than from L2, and
in varying strengths of these links. The present study
hypothesizes that the cognitive processes accompanying
early L2 acquisition establish a particular architecture in
the bilingual mind that results in cognitive advantages
later in life. One of the possible advantages is that the
acquisition of both languages at an early age may lead
to a greater sensitivity to underlying concepts and more
refined connections between linguistic and conceptual
representations. In turn, greater sensitivity may result
in establishing more elaborate associations and therefore
greater divergent thinking.
Bilinguals’ exposure to new cultural environment
The previous sections proposed that the age of L2
acquisition and proficiency in both languages were
possible contributors to bilinguals’ divergent thinking
abilities. These two factors are likely to be complemented
by a third factor – the degree of the bilinguals’ exposure
to the cultural settings of the languages they have
learned.
This study, as well as many other studies in
bilingualism research, is conducted with immigrants.
These individuals have acquired each of their languages
in the respective cultural environment where different
cultural cues were available (Pavlenko, 2000). For

227

example, most of the Russian–English bilingual
participants in the present study have acquired their
L1 (Russian) while living in Russia, and their L2
(English) after immigrating to the USA. Their L2
acquisition, as suggested by acculturation research, is
often accompanied by the adoption of new cultural
values (Gordon, 1964; Birman, Trickett and Vinokurov,
2002). In turn, contemporary research on conceptual
representations in bilingual memory shows that bilinguals
may undergo conceptual changes due to their experiences
within different cultural settings (e.g., De Groot, 2000;
Paradis, 2000; Pavlenko, 2005). These researchers argue
that the conceptual system of individuals who acquire
more than one language inevitably undergoes adaptations
that are influenced by the cultural and social contexts in
which these languages were learned. Cultural knowledge
(in the form of schemas and frames) modifies conceptual
representations and organizations in the memories of
bilingual speakers (Vaid, 2000). New connotations,
even entirely new meanings, may develop through
acculturation. In turn, newly developed conceptual
representations may promote cognitive flexibility, and
novel and creative ways of encoding experience. The
present study takes these considerations into account
and introduces exposure to new cultural environments as
another factor that can potentially influence bilinguals’
divergent thinking.
Unfortunately, studies that examine the cultural effects
on individuals’ creative potential are few in number and
highly inconsistent (Niu and Sternberg, 2001). Exposure
to cultural settings, although recognized as an important
factor in bilingual development (e.g., Cummins and
Gulutsan, 1974; Okoh, 1980; Lopez, 2003), has been
virtually ignored in empirical studies, possibly due to
the fact that it is difficult to measure and relate to the
individuals’ cognitive functioning (Francis, 2000). The
present study makes an attempt to overcome this problem
by introducing two quantitative measures of bilinguals’
cultural experience.
Research in cultural adaptation emphasizes that the rate
of exposure to new cultural settings should be assessed by
the participants’ age of arrival to a new country and their
length of residence in that country. These two factors are
argued to be conceptually different and to have different
implications for immigrants of different ages (e.g., Marin,
Sabogal, Marin and Otero-Sabogal, 1987; Tsai, Ying and
Lee, 2000; Birman and Trickett, 2001). In particular,
Tsai and her colleagues claim that individuals who were
exposed to both cultures early or late in life would exhibit
variations in cognitive functioning, which might result in
a different perception of the L1 and L2 cultural values.
The present study adopts this viewpoint and takes the age
of arrival to a new country and the length of residence in it
as the measures of bilinguals’ exposure to a new cultural
environment.

228

Anatoliy V. Kharkhurin

The present study objective
The studies reviewed above show that bilinguals’
extensive cross-linguistic and cross-cultural experiences
may enhance their performance on various cognitive tasks.
The facilitatory effect is explained by specific processing
in the bilingual mind: experiences with different linguistic
and cultural settings may result in certain modifications of
bilingual memory, which in turn may improve cognitive
abilities. By analogy, the present study hypothesizes
that cross-linguistic and cross-cultural experiences may
have an influence on bilinguals’ divergent thinking.
The specific architecture of bilingual memory may
account for bilinguals’ greater range of associations to
a concept compared to non-bilingual speakers because
it is situated in two different linguistic conceptual
networks (Lubart, 1999). It is this diversity of associations
that is considered to be a key property of divergent
thinking.
Thus, the present study pursues two major goals.
First, it explores the hypothesis that bilingualism has
an effect on unconscious divergent thinking. To test
this hypothesis, the performance of bilinguals and
monolinguals was compared on DT tasks, which, as per
Guilford (1967), assess fluency, flexibility, elaboration,
and originality in divergent thinking. The superior
performance by bilinguals on these measures could
be regarded as supportive of the hypothesis, whereas
equivalent or inferior performance would contradict the
hypothesis.
The second goal of the study is to examine the
factors in bilingual development that may facilitate
divergent thinking. The performance of different types
of bilinguals was compared on the aforementioned DT
tasks. Three factors in bilingual cross-linguistic and
cross-cultural experiences were explored as potential
determinants of bilingualism type: proficiency in the two
languages, age of acquisition of L2, and exposure to the
cultural environment of L2. The significant performance
differences in different types of bilinguals could be
regarded as supportive to the hypothesis that bilinguals’
experience with different linguistic and cultural settings
has an impact on their divergent thinking. No
performance differences would suggest that other factors
in individual development might influence divergent
thinking.
In contrast to most previous studies, college students
were enlisted as participants in order to determine
whether the benefits of bilingualism previously detected in
childhood persist into adulthood when a cognitive system
is well established. To minimize the methodological
problems with assessment of language skills, a screening
procedure was administered in which various measures
were used to provide a careful control of the degree of
language proficiency.

The screening test
Participants
Participants were Brooklyn College (BC) psychology students who participated for course credit. Participants were
recruited from an on-campus subject pool through posters
that advertised the need for bilinguals who were native
Russian speakers, and monolinguals who were native
English speakers with no skills in any other language.
Due to the fact that monolingual participants in this
study went through a secondary and higher education
system in the USA where foreign language education
is required, they cannot be considered as entirely
monolingual; rather, they are considered as speakers
with minimal degrees of foreign language proficiency.
Self-report measures of participants’ proficiency in
languages other than English and their country of
origin were included on a monolingual version of a
biographical questionnaire, and this data was then used to
ensure that monolingual participants satisfy the selection
criteria. Twenty monolingual participants whose selfrating proficiency score in languages other than English
exceeded 4 out of 14 points were eliminated. In addition,
13 monolingual participants who were born and lived in
other countries were also eliminated from the study.
Another constraint on participants’ selection was the
levels of language proficiency in the bilingual group.
Participants whose score on an English or Russian
objective picture naming test did not reach 30 out of
120 items were eliminated. In addition, five potential
participants who did not complete this test were eliminated
from the study.
A total of 103 immigrants from the former Soviet
Union who speak both Russian and English (25 male
and 78 female) aged between 16 and 39 (M = 21.57,
SD = 4.63) were selected for the experiment. Of these,
101 born in the former Soviet Union had immigrated to
the USA at different ages (M = 13.57, SD = 6.86), and
had resided in the USA for different time intervals (M
= 8.08, SD = 4.93); two participants were born in the
USA. However, all bilingual participants indicated that
they had acquired Russian as their L1 and English as their
L2 at different ages (M = 9.27, SD = 3.96). In addition,
47 native monolingual English speakers (18 male and 29
female) aged between 16 and 51 (M = 23.45, SD = 8.96)
were selected for the study.
Among the bilingual participants, 15 reported
enrollment in higher education programs in Russia for
one to four years (M = 1.97, SD = .97, indicating an
incomplete degree assuming a standard five year program)
and six participants indicated that they had attended higher
education for five to seven and a half years (M = 5.92,
SD = 1.11). Participants who were enrolled in higher
education programs in Russia showed no significant

Bilinguals’ divergent thinking
performance differences on any of the divergent thinking
tasks compared to all other bilingual and monolingual
participants (all ps>.72). An additional 31 bilingual
participants indicated that they had not attended secondary
education in the USA, while 15 bilingual participants had
attended secondary school in the USA for fewer than four
years (M = 2.37, SD = 1.00) and 57 bilingual participants
had attended secondary school in the USA for four or more
years (M = 4.25, SD = 1.21). A participant’s history
of secondary schooling in the USA was found to have
no significant effect on their performance on any of the
divergent thinking tasks (all ps>.55). The fact that at the
time of data collection all participants were enrolled in
an undergraduate program at BC and that no significant
effect of prior schooling was found on their divergent
thinking performance suggests that the different bilingual
and monolingual groups were comparable with respect to
level and quality of education.
Biographical questionnaire
A biographical questionnaire (BQ, developed by
Kharkhurin, 2005; see Appendix A) was administered
to determine participants’ linguistic, cultural, and educational backgrounds. Bilinguals received a questionnaire
used to obtain data on each participant’s place of origin,
age of immigration to the USA, length of residence in the
USA, age of acquisition of English and Russian, and the
level of education obtained in Russia and the USA.
The BQ also included Likert-type 4-point scales on
which participants rated their abilities in reading, writing,
speaking, and listening in English and Russian, and a
Likert-type 3-point scale on which participants rated their
ability to speak without an accent in these languages.
The perceived accent rating was added because it has
been an important topic in L2 acquisition research (see
Major, 2001, for a review). The total subject self-rating
score (SSR) ranged from 0 to 14 for each language. In
the monolingual version of the BQ, the self-rating scales
for Russian were substituted by the ones for the language
other than English that the participants spoke best. This
rating was used to ensure that monolingual participants
satisfy the selection criteria.
The purpose of the various measures of language
proficiency used in the present study was to justify
assigning participants to balanced and dominant groups.
Therefore, in addition to traditional self-ratings in
major linguistic skills that assess individuals’ language
proficiency, a Bilingual Balance Scale (BBS, developed by
Kharkhurin, 2005; see Appendix A) was introduced as a
more direct measure of linguistic dominance. Participants
were asked to rate their degree of bilingualism on a
Likert-type 11-point scale. Greater positive BBS scores
indicate English linguistic dominance, with 5 representing
English monolingual speakers, while greater negative

229

BBS scores indicate Russian linguistic dominance with
−5 representing Russian monolinguals. A zero score
indicates bilingual balance.
Picture naming test
In addition to the self-report measures of language
proficiency, participants were tested on a standard test
of productive vocabulary, the Picture Naming Test (PNT).
Language proficiency was assessed by the accuracy of the
participants’ responses to 120 pictures of simple objects,
a technique similar to the Boston Naming Test (Kaplan,
Goodglass and Weintraub, 1983) and the one used by
Lemmon and Goggin (1989). The pictures, randomly
selected from those scaled by Rossion and Pourtois
(2001), an improved version of Snodgrass and Vanderwart
(1980), were arranged on four pages. The pages were
then duplicated to make an eight-page booklet, with
each picture appearing twice. Responses were recorded
in booklets with numbered lines corresponding to the
pictures. Each participant was given four minutes to label
in one language as many as possible of the 60 pictures
on the first two pages and was given an additional four
minutes to do the same task in the other language for
the 60 pictures on the second two pages. The procedure
was then repeated with the language order reversed. To
prevent the emergence of a language priming effect,
the order of languages was counter-balanced across
participants. Each response was scored either 1 or 0, so
that the maximum number of points for picture naming
in either language was 120. A list of appropriate labels
in English and Russian was generated for each picture
by two independent native speakers for each language.
If the participant’s label matched the corresponding
item on the list, they scored 1 point; otherwise,
0 points. Spelling errors in the participants’ responses
were disregarded.
An obvious limitation of this test, as well as many
other language proficiency tests in the field, is that it
does not assess all four major language skills: speaking,
writing, listening, and reading (cf. Padilla and Ruiz,
1973). However, the use of this test can be justified by
the prior use of similar tests in a number of studies on
bilinguals’ cognitive abilities (e.g., Lemmon and Goggin,
1989; Bialystok et al., 2004), as well as by one finding
of the present study, which is that the PNT is highly
correlated with the self-rating scores (see Table 1) and
the scores in the Cloze procedure (Taylor, 1953) used in
the pilot study (r = .769, p < .01 for English; and r =
.834, p < .01 for Russian).
Language proficiency grouping criteria
The major purpose of the various measures of linguistic
skills was to provide a basis for discriminating between

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Anatoliy V. Kharkhurin
Table 1. Pearson Correlations for the Language Proficiency Measures ( N = 103).

1. Picture Naming Test English
2. Picture Naming Test Russian
3. Subject self-rating score for English
4. Subject self-rating score for Russian
5. Subject self-rating on the BBS
∗∗

2

3

4

5

−.30∗∗

.61∗∗∗
−.46∗∗∗

−.57∗∗∗
.72∗∗
−.52∗∗∗

−.51∗∗∗
−.64∗∗∗
.59∗∗∗
−.78∗∗∗

p < .01, ∗∗∗ p < .001

participants who make up the different language
proficiency groups. The usefulness of the self-ratings and
the picture-naming test as assessment tools of language
proficiency in bilinguals was also considered. Table 1
gives the inter-correlations between the objective and
subjective language proficiency scores. All correlations
were significantly high (all p s< .01) suggesting that the
participants were able to provide a good estimate of their
linguistic proficiency by evaluating their abilities in four
major language skills (reading, writing, speaking, and
listening) and in speaking without an accent in English
and Russian, as well as by estimating the degree of their
bilingual dominance. The strong correlations between
various measures of language proficiency suggest that the
English and Russian PNT scores could be safely used for
the language proficiency groupings.
A median split was performed on the bilingual
participants’ PNT scores. The 24 fluent bilinguals who
scored above the median on both English and Russian
tests comprised the High Proficiency group. The 31
bilinguals scoring above the median on the English PNT
and below the median on the Russian PNT made up the
English Dominant bilingual group. Those 28 bilinguals
who scored below the median on English PNT and above
the median on the Russian PNT were included in the
Russian Dominant bilingual group. The other 20 with
PNT scores below the median on both tests formed the
Low Proficiency group. The mean English and Russian
PNT scores for the four language proficiency types are
reported in the first two columns of Table 2. ANOVA
performed on the means of English and Russian PNTs as
a function of language proficiency type provided support
for the median split: all four groups scored significantly
differently from each other (F(3,99) = 72.82, p < .001
and F(3,99) = 110.05, p < .001, for English and Russian
PNTs, respectively).
The data from the self-report ratings (summarized in
the last three columns of Table 2) also converges well
with the groupings based on the objective PNT. The main
effect of the language proficiency group was found for
bilinguals’ self-ratings in English (F(3,99) = 32.08, p
< .001) and Russian (F(3,102) = 52.33, p < .001).

Bilinguals in the High Proficiency group rated themselves
equally high on both English and Russian (t(23) = −.62,
p = .54), those in the Low Proficiency group rated
themselves low on both languages (t(19) = −.71, p = .49),
whereas the Dominant groups rated themselves higher on
their dominant language (t(23) = 13.86, p < .001 and t(27)
= 15.83, p < .001, for the English and Russian Dominant
groups, respectively).
A similar pattern was found for bilinguals’ estimation
of their degree of bilingualism, which significantly related
to language proficiency type (F(3,99) = 36.71, p < .001).
Bilinguals in the Dominant groups reported themselves
biased toward their dominant language with a highly
significant difference between the BBS scores in the
English and Russian Dominant groups (t(57) = 10.51,
p < .001). Bilinguals in the High and Low Proficiency
groups reported significantly greater bilingual balance
(BBS score closer to 0) than their counterparts in the
Dominant groups (t(53) = −6.90, p < .001 and t(50)
= 3.38, p < .01, for the High Proficiency, and English
and Russian Dominant groups respectively, and t(49) =
−4.55, p < .001 and t(46) = 4.18, p < .001, for the
Low Proficiency, and English and Russian Dominant
groups respectively). No significant difference in the
BBS scores was found between the High and Low
Proficiency groups. These findings suggest that dominant
bilinguals estimated themselves as more biased toward
their dominant language, whereas those with comparable
mastery in both languages tended to consider themselves
as more balanced bilinguals regardless of their absolute
skills in both languages.
The divergent thinking test
Procedure
After administering the BQ and the PNT, participants
were given the DT test, which was introduced as a test
of thinking up new ideas and solving problems. Divergent
thinking abilities were assessed using the Abbreviated
Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA; Goff and Torrance,
2002). The ATTA has been developed on the basis of the

Bilinguals’ divergent thinking

231

Table 2. Mean Scores (with Standard Deviations in parentheses) on the Picture Naming and Self-Rating
Tests for Four Bilingual Language Proficiency Types ( N = 103).

High Proficiency
English Dominant
Russian Dominant
Low Proficiency

PNT English

PNT Russian

SSR English

SSR Russian

BBS

101.92 (6.88)
105.32 (5.75)
76.18 (11.85)
77.45 (12.05)

103.96 (6.60)
59.13 (13.72)
107.61 (6.32)
70.15 (18.78)

11.08 (1.95)
12.68 (1.47)
8.32 (1.74)
9.80 (1.94)

11.58 (2.89)
6.10 (2.39)
13.75 (.59)
10.40 (3.32)

−.38 (1.06)
1.74 (1.18)
−1.39 (1.10)
.10 (1.37)

Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT; Torrance,
1966). The TTCT has been the standard for assessment of
divergent thinking abilities since it was first published in
the mid-1960s, and it has been used in about three-quarters
of all recently published studies of creativity involving
elementary and secondary school children (Baer, 1993)
in the USA (Davis, 1989; Runco, 1993) and across the
globe (Niaz and Saud de Nunez, 1991; Kim and Michael,
1995). In addition, a number of studies using this test
have been conducted with bilinguals speaking different
languages (e.g., Chinese–English and Malayan–English
in Torrance, Gowan, Wu and Aliotti, 1970; French–
English in the St. Lambert Project (see Lambert, 1975,
for a review); Japanese–English in Konaka, 1997). The
ATTA consists of activities utilizing the same rationale
as activities in the original TTCT, but in abbreviated
form, and requires considerably less testing time, which
is particularly beneficial when administering it to adults.
The standard ATTA has three paper and pencil
activities preceded by a written instruction that explains
general guidelines and encourages participants to use
their imagination and thinking abilities. At the beginning
of the test participants were asked what language they
preferred to take the test. In response to their preference,
instructions were given either in English or in Russian.
The English version of the instructions was taken directly
from the original ATTA, whereas the Russian translation
was produced by the author, a native speaker of Russian.
Participants were encouraged to give verbal answers in
the language in which they felt more comfortable.
In the problem identification task (Activity 1)
participants were asked to suppose that they could walk on
air or fly without being in an airplane or a similar vehicle,
and then to identify the troubles they might encounter. This
activity provided verbal fluency and originality scores. In
the picture completion task (Activity 2) participants were
presented with two incomplete figures (Appendix B(a))
and were asked to draw as many pictures as possible
with these figures. This activity provided figural fluency,
originality, and elaboration scores. In the picture
construction task (Activity 3) participants were presented
with a group of nine triangles arranged in a 3×3 matrix
(Appendix B(b)) and were asked to draw as many pictures
or objects as they could using the triangles. Again, they

were encouraged to make these pictures as unusual as
possible. This activity provided figural fluency, originality,
elaboration and flexibility scores.
Two independent raters bilingual in Russian and
English then assessed the participants’ divergent thinking
abilities using the standard ATTA assessment procedure
(Goff and Torrance, 2002). Both raters were shown to
be highly consistent in their rationales and ratings, as
indicated by significantly high correlations in their results
(r = .77, p < .01, for fluency; r = .96, p < .001,
for flexibility; r = .90, p < .001, for elaboration; and
r = .65, p < .01, for originality). A standard ATTA
assessment consists of four divergent thinking traits,
fluency, originality, elaboration, and flexibility. Fluency
measures the ability to produce quantities of ideas. A
fluency raw score is derived from the sum of fluency
scores in all three activities. Originality measures the
ability to produce uncommon ideas or ideas that are
totally new or unique. The sum of originality scores
in all three activities provides an originality raw score.
Elaboration measures the ability to embellish ideas with
details. The sum of elaboration scores in Activities 2 and
3 provides an elaboration raw score. Finally, flexibility
measures the ability to process information or objects
in different ways, given the same stimulus. A flexibility
raw score is obtained from Activity 3. The raw scores for
fluency, originality, elaboration, and flexibility obtained in
the test were subsequently transformed into scaled normreferenced scores by the recommended procedure (Goff
and Torrance, 2002), which took age-related norms into
account. The ATTA manual reports the Kuder-Richardson
(KR21) reliability coefficient for the total raw score for
the four traits measured by the ATTA as .84.
ATTA measures of divergent thinking traits
The first three columns of Table 3 present the intercorrelations among the norm-referenced ATTA scores.
The correlations between the ATTA measures were factor
analyzed using the principal component method with
varimax rotation. SPSS FACTOR extracted two factors,
which accounted for 72.83% of the variance. Loadings
of the measures on these factors appear in the last two
columns of Table 3, with the highest loading italicized.

232

Anatoliy V. Kharkhurin

Table 3. Pearson Correlations and Factor Loadings for
the Norm-Referenced ATTA Scores ( N = 150).
Divergent thinking measures

Factor loadings

2

I

II

.87
.88
.42
−.26

.13
−.17
.65
.82

3
∗∗∗

1. Fluency
.63
2. Flexibility
3. Elaboration
4. Originality

4
∗∗

.27
.16∗

−.03
−.22∗∗
.11

p < .05, ∗∗ p < .01, ∗∗∗ p < .001

Factor I is determined primarily by the ATTA measures
of fluency and flexibility. This factor thus appears to
represent the ability to generate various solutions to a
problem. The second factor seems to represent innovative
thinking with the highest loading on originality. Therefore,
the four ATTA measures seem to represent two types
of creative behavior. The first type addresses ability
to simultaneously generate and process various, often
unrelated, ideas from different categories, and the second
type of creative behavior addresses the ability to generate
novel and unique ideas.

Results and discussion
Bilinguals vs. monolinguals
Figure 1 presents the average scores of bilingual
and monolingual participants on four norm-referenced
ATTA measures (fluency, flexibility, elaboration, and
originality). An ANOVA revealed that bilingual
participants outperformed their monolingual counterparts
on three out of four ATTA measures. They scored
significantly higher on fluency (M = 1.27, F(1,148)
= 10.98, p < .01) and flexibility (M = 1.15, F(1,148)
= 6.85, p < .05). They also scored higher on elaboration
(M = .58, F(1,148) = 2.19, p = .14), but this effect
did not reach significance. No significant difference was
found for bilinguals’ and monolinguals’ performance
on the ATTA measures of originality. These findings
indicate that bilingualism might have an impact on the
ability to rapidly produce a large number of ideas or
solutions to a problem (fluency), the capacity to consider
a variety of approaches to a problem simultaneously
(flexibility), and have a tendency to encourage the
process of thinking through the details of an idea
(elaboration). However, it does not have an effect on
the tendency to produce ideas different from those of
most other people (originality). Based on the assumptions
made from the factor analysis reported above, these
findings suggest that bilinguals show greater abilities
to simultaneously generate and process various, often

unrelated, ideas from different categories, but have
no advantages in the generation of novel and unique
ideas.
Bilingual developmental factors influencing divergent
thinking
The second goal of this study was to determine what
factors in the bilinguals’ development may influence
their divergent thinking abilities. Three major factors
were proposed: language proficiency measured by the
PNT in English (PNTE) and Russian (PNTR), age of
L2 acquisition (AoE), and exposure to the new cultural
settings measured by the age of arrival to the USA
(AoA) and the length of residence in the USA (LoR).
The correlational analysis reported in Table 4 shows a
highly significant relationship between all five variables.
The negative correlation between the PNTE and the AoE
suggests that an earlier onset of English learning is related
to greater linguistic skills in this language. The analysis
also points out that an earlier arrival to the USA and
the longer residence in the country are related to better
acquisition of English, as indicated by the correlation
between the PNTE and the AoA and the LoR.
These findings hint to the possible interplay of
language proficiency, age of L2 acquisition, and the rate
of exposure to the new cultural settings. Thus, to study the
independent effect of each of these factors on divergent
thinking abilities, three partial correlational analyses were
carried out.
The first analysis explored whether the participants’
age of L2 acquisition is related to divergent thinking
performance when the effect of their proficiencies in
English and Russian and the rate of exposure to the
new cultural settings are controlled for. This partial
correlational analysis compared the AoE and four normreferenced ATTA measures, controlling for the PNTE,
the PNTR, the AoA, and the LoR. The analysis revealed
significant negative correlations between the AoE and
the ATTA measures of fluency (r = −.24, p < .05) and
flexibility (r = −.28, p < .01). These negative correlations
suggest that when the effects of language proficiency
and exposure to the new cultural settings were partialed
out, earlier L2 learners tended to have greater abilities to
rapidly produce a large number of ideas or solutions to a
problem (fluency), and to consider a variety of approaches
to a problem simultaneously (flexibility).1

1

Note, however, that the absence of Russian native monolingual
speakers prevents the study from stating definitive conclusions
whether the advantages in task performance of the earlier L2
learners stem from the speakers’ bilingualism or from differences
in educational histories between the individuals who came to the
USA earlier or later. To account for this issue, an additional
correlational analysis was performed with the AoE and number of

Bilinguals’ divergent thinking

233

Figure 1. The average scores of bilingual and monolingual groups on four norm-referenced ATTA measures (N = 150).

Table 4. Pearson Correlations for Five Bilingual Developmental Variables (N = 103).
2
1. Picture Naming Test English
2. Picture Naming Test Russian
3. Age of L2 acquisition
4. Age of arrival to the USA
5. Length of residence in the USA
∗∗

3
∗∗

−.30

4
∗∗∗

−.49
.36∗∗∗

5
∗∗∗

−.61
.60∗∗∗
.62∗∗∗

.70∗∗∗
−.52∗∗∗
−.45∗∗∗
−.76∗∗∗

p < .01, ∗∗∗ p < .001

years of schooling in a Russian-speaking environment. It revealed
a highly significant positive correlation between the AoE and the
number of years participants spent in high school and/or college in
Russia (r = .60, p < .001). This finding indicates that participants
who acquired L2 earlier tended to have less education in Russia.
Moreover, the highly significant correlations between the AoE, AoA,
and LoR (see Table 4) suggest that earlier L2 learners tended
to come to the USA at an earlier age and therefore tended to
have more schooling in an English-speaking environment (r =
.60 and r = −.50, both ps < .001, for education in the USA

Second, a partial correlational analysis with the LoR
and four norm-referenced ATTA measures controlling for
the PNTE, the PNTR, the AoE, and the AoA revealed
significant correlations between the LoR and the ATTA
and the LoR and AoA, respectively). The finding that earlier L2
learners had less schooling in a Russian-speaking environment
tends to rule out the possibility of the effects of the Russian
educational context per se and to support the interpretation that the
performance differences can be ascribed to the effect of the age of L2
acquisition.

234

Anatoliy V. Kharkhurin

measures of fluency (r = .21, p < .05), flexibility (r =
.23, p < .05), and elaboration (r = −.20, p < .05). These
findings suggest that when other effects are partialed out,
the length of exposure to new cultural settings might have
an effect on bilinguals’ ability to simultaneously generate
and process various, often unrelated, ideas from different
categories. A partial correlational analysis with the AoA
and four norm-referenced ATTA measures controlling for
the PNTE, the PNTR, the AoE, and the LoR provided no
significant results.
Third, to explore whether the participants’ proficiencies in English and Russian are related to divergent
thinking performance when the effect of their age of L2
acquisition and the rate of exposure to the new cultural
settings are controlled for, a partial correlational analysis
was performed with the PNTE, the PNTR and four normreferenced ATTA measures controlling for the AoE, the
AoA, and the LoR. The analysis revealed a significant
positive correlation between the PNTE and the PNTR and
the ATTA measures of elaboration (r = .26 and r = .25
for English and Russian PNT respectively, both p s< .05).
These positive correlations suggest that when the effects
of age of L2 acquisition and exposure to the new cultural
settings were partialed out, the participants with greater
proficiency in both English and Russian tended to have
greater abilities to think through the details of an idea and
carry it out (elaboration).
This finding suggests a potential difference in divergent
thinking performance across language proficiency
groups. To explore this effect, four norm-referenced
ATTA measures were transformed into residuals by
systematically excluding the effects of the AoE, the
LoR, and the AoA. Subsequently, an ANOVA was
performed with the residuals of four ATTA measures as
dependent variables and the language proficiency group
(high, unbalanced,2 low) as the independent variable. The
analysis revealed a marginally significant effect of the
language proficiency group on the ATTA measure of
elaboration (F(2,100) = 2.74, p = .07). A subsequent
LSD post-hoc analysis revealed that the High Proficiency
group significantly outperformed the Unbalanced and
the Low Proficiency groups on the ATTA measure of
elaboration (M = 1.04, p < .05 and M = 1.34, p < .05,
respectively). Moreover, only the High Proficiency group
significantly outperformed the monolingual group on this
2

Note that this study is concerned with the possible consequences
of changes in bilingual memory on divergent thinking. Following
Kroll and De Groot (1997), the study assumes that both English
and Russian Dominant bilinguals may have asymmetric lexical–
conceptual representations, which may result in a specific pattern
of performance on the DT test. The possible differences in structural
representations of English and Russian are left beyond the scope of
this work. Therefore, in the analysis both the English and Russian
Dominant bilingual groups were combined to form the Unbalanced
bilingual group.

measure (t(69) = 2.28, p < .05). However, the significant
effect disappeared when a stricter Bonferroni post-hoc
analysis was applied. These findings show that when the
effects of other factors are controlled for, bilinguals with
high proficiency in both languages tended to outperform
their less proficient counterparts on the measure that taps
into the ability to think through the details of an idea and
carry it out (elaboration).
General discussion
This study explores several research questions pertinent
to the influence of bilingualism on individuals’ divergent
thinking abilities. Bilingualism is found to have an
effect on fluency, flexibility, and elaboration in divergent
thinking. These traits respectively address the ability to
rapidly produce a large number of ideas or solutions to a
problem, the capacity to consider a variety of approaches
to a problem simultaneously, and the ability to think
through the details of an idea and carry it out. Three
factors in bilinguals’ development (age of L2 acquisition,
proficiency in both languages, and rate of exposure to new
cultural settings) were proposed as potential contributors
to their superior divergent thinking. The findings indicate
that all three factors may have an impact on individuals’
divergent thinking performance. Bilinguals who acquired
their L2 earlier tended to outperform their counterparts
who acquired L2 later in life on the measures of
fluency and flexibility in divergent thinking, which require
simultaneous activation of a large number of concepts
from different categories. At the same time, bilinguals
with high proficiency in both languages tended to score
higher on the measure of elaboration, which taps into the
ability to keep concepts active during the thought process.
Finally, those bilinguals with longer exposure to the new
cultural settings tended to show greater abilities on all of
the above listed divergent thinking traits.
Bilinguals’ superior divergent thinking
The finding of advanced divergent thinking abilities
in bilinguals raises the question of the nature of the
traits that are facilitated by bilingualism. The factor
analysis performed on four divergent thinking measures
revealed that fluency, flexibility, and elaboration can be
grouped together as representative of the capacity to
simultaneously generate and elaborate on various, often
unrelated, ideas and strategies. This ability could result
from the simultaneous activation and processing of a
multitude of unrelated concepts from different categories.
The simultaneous engagement of distant concepts is likely
to be encouraged by the unconscious automatic spreading
activation (Meyer and Schvaneveldt, 1971) that results in
more mental representations to be activated and brought to
conscious awareness (Yaniv and Meyer, 1987). This notion

Bilinguals’ divergent thinking
suggests that in addition to their superior CONSCIOUS
processes of attentional focus and inhibition, as shown
by Bialystok and her colleagues (see Bialystok, 2001,
for an overview), bilinguals might have an advantage on
UNCONSCIOUS automatic processing.
Kharkhurin (2007) proposes that the specific
architecture of bilingual memory may facilitate the
greater spreading activation between concepts. The
functioning of this mechanism is stimulated by the lemma
and word form-mediated concept activation. The
idea of a language mediated concept activation
(LMCA)3 is based on the assumption that translation
equivalents automatically activate each other through
shared conceptual representations (e.g., concept mediated
translation in Kroll and De Groot, 1997). Although
translation equivalents share most of the conceptual
features, these representations are not identical
(e.g., Paradis, 1997). Variations in the conceptual
representations of translation equivalents may result in
the simultaneous activation of additional concepts, which
eventually may produce a large pattern of activation
over unrelated concepts from different categories.
The activation of these concepts is assumed to take
place through the lemmas representing the translation
equivalents in two languages and/or through the word
forms (e.g., phonetic, orthographic) shared by these
languages. The evidence for the LMCA is provided
by the between-language studies using semantic (see
Kroll and Tokowicz, 2005, for a review) and translation
(see Altarriba and Basnight-Brown, 2007, for a review)
priming paradigms. These studies reveal that automatic
spreading activation takes place not only between
translation equivalents in different languages, but between
semantically related words in different languages as well.
The elaborative LMCA may allow bilinguals to process
a large number of unrelated concepts from different
categories simultaneously, i.e., it may increase bilinguals’
divergent thinking abilities. However, the question
of whether bilinguals who show greater translation
and semantic priming effects also demonstrate greater
divergent thinking performance needs to be addressed in
future studies.
Although this study has found that bilingualism has
an impact on creative behavior, this effect seems to be
limited to the basic cognitive functioning underlying
divergent thinking. The findings show that bilinguals
outperform their monolingual counterparts only on the
measures of fluency, flexibility, and elaboration, but not
on the measure of originality, with the latter representing
innovative thinking. This finding may suggest that
bilinguals have no advantage over their monolingual
3

The term used in the original paper (Kharkhurin, in press) was crosslanguage transfer (CLT). It was substituted by the LMCA, because the
latter provides a more precise description of the nature of the process.

235

counterparts on more sophisticated processing that results
in ability to generate novel and unique ideas. Thereby,
the findings of the present study indirectly contribute
to the argument that divergent thinking is a necessary,
but not a sufficient component of creative thought
(Guilford, 1967, 1975). Although bilinguals in this study
show superior performance on the tasks that require the
ability to simultaneously activate different concepts or
categories, they fail to outperform their monolingual
counterparts on the task requiring production of novel
and original ideas and solutions to a problem. Other
factors unrelated to a specifically bilingual experience
such as intelligence, education, expertise, motivation,
personality traits, and personal experience may play a
more dominant role in overall creative ability. This idea
overlaps with the argument in creativity literature that
divergent thinking should be considered as one among
many factors contributing to creative achievement (e.g.,
Amabile, 1983; Eysenck, 1994). For example, Eysenck’s
model considers divergent thinking (defined as a creativity
trait) as one component of “a possible set of cognitive,
personality, and environmental variables that are likely
to interact in a multiplicative fashion to produce creative
product and achievements” (p. 208). Similarly, Guilford
(1967) contrasted divergent thinking with convergent
thinking – the ability to narrow all possible alternatives
down to a single solution. The product of the interplay of
convergent and divergent thinking was assumed to satisfy
the requirements of creativity.
Finally, the findings of the study contribute to
an important debate in creativity literature regarding
whether the capacity for creative thought is limited
to a certain class of gifted or specially talented
people, or whether the creative faculty is an essential
property of normative human cognition. The former
view considers creative people as a minority capable
of genuine creative thinking, and thus creativity has
little bearing on the everyday cognitive activities of the
general population (e.g., Hershman and Lieb, 1988). In
this view, eminently creative people employ cognitive
processes that are radically different from those used
by most individuals in everyday problem solving. In
contrast, the creative cognition approach argues that the
former use the same processes of normative human
cognition as the latter (Ward, Smith and Finke, 1999).
This “mundane” cognitive functioning, which may go
beyond everyday human capacities, satisfies the criteria
of creative products: novelty and utility. In this theoretical
framework, creativity can be explained by enhanced
normative cognition. Specifically, the differences in
individuals’ creative performance can be understood in
terms of variations in the use of specifiable processes
and the richness and flexibility of stored cognitive
structures to which the processes are applied (Ward
et al., 1997). The present research shows that by de

236

Anatoliy V. Kharkhurin

facto exposure to various linguistic and sociocultural
environments, bilinguals seem to benefit from the
LMCA, and this may facilitate their spreading activation
mechanism. The larger span of spreading activation may
potentially result in greater divergent thinking, which is
considered an important component of creative thought.
By showing this, the present study argues that the
“mundane” cognitive functioning enhanced in the process
of bilingual development may increase individuals’
creative capacities.
The logical continuation on the finding that
bilingualism may contribute to superior divergent thinking
would focus on the specific factors in bilingual
development that may facilitate this trait. The present
study demonstrates that three aspects of bilinguals’ crosslinguistic and cross-cultural experiences exhibit some
influence on divergent thinking. The following sections
present a discussion of these developmental factors.
Language proficiency
Multidimensional assessment of linguistic skills
Three measures for each language were used in this
study: the picture naming test, the self-rating scales, and
the bilingual balance scale. The findings of significant
correlations among all three measures lend support to
the notion that self-ratings adequately reflect language
abilities (e.g., Macnamara, 1967; Albert and Obler,
1978). The traditional self-rating scales of four major
language skills (speaking, writing, listening, and reading)
complemented by the self-rating of the strength of the
accent in both languages provided a good prediction of
the participants’ PNT scores. In addition, participants
were found to give a good estimation of their relative
linguistic abilities by indicating their degree of bilingual
dominance on the BBS. These findings have at least one
practical application for the assessment of bilingualism;
they suggest that the degree of language proficiency can
be measured with a limited number of tests rather than by
a direct assessment of the 16 skills in both languages as
was recommended by Padilla (1977).
The study reveals a tendency for the proficiency of
bilinguals in both English and Russian to have an effect
on elaboration in divergent thinking. Specifically, it shows
that bilinguals with a high proficiency in both languages
are more successful in elaboration than their less proficient
counterparts. This finding is in line with a number of
studies on children showing greater divergent thinking
performance of bilinguals highly proficient in both
languages compared with their linguistically unbalanced
counterparts (e.g., Carringer, 1974; Konaka, 1997).
Further, the finding that only bilinguals from the
High Proficiency group outperformed the monolingual
participants overlaps with the threshold theory (Cummins,
1976), arguing that bilinguals need to achieve high

levels of proficiency in both of their languages
before bilingualism can promote cognitive advantages.
Ricciardelli (1992a) tested this theory with Italian–
English bilingual and English monolingual children.
She found that only bilingual children with high
proficiency in both Italian and English showed superior
divergent thinking abilities. Those bilinguals who had low
proficiency in either one or both languages did not show
any significant difference from the monolinguals.
The greater performance on elaboration in divergent
thinking of the bilinguals from the High Proficiency group
could be explained by their advanced LMCA (Kharkhurin,
2007). This divergent thinking trait addresses the ability
to think through the details of an idea and carry it out,
which presumably results from a capability to establish
more links in a conceptual system. The proficiency in L1
and L2 determines the strength of the connections between
the lexical and conceptual systems in bilingual memory.
The degree of linguistic skills may influence the intensity
of the lexical access: greater language proficiency may
result in establishing stronger and more elaborate links to
the conceptual system. As a result, more concepts become
readily available for the LMCA. Therefore, bilinguals
who attained a high expertise in both languages would
have stronger and more efficient links between lexical and
conceptual levels than those who were not able to develop
any of their languages to a high degree. Thus, bilinguals
highly proficient in both languages would employ the
LMCA mechanism more effectively and therefore show
greater elaboration in divergent thinking compared with
their less proficient counterparts.
Age of L2 acquisition
The study also provides evidence that the age at which L2
was acquired relates to fluency and flexibility in divergent
thinking. The individuals who acquired L2 at a younger
age showed greater abilities in these traits. To the author’s
knowledge, no study examining the relationship between
bilingualism and creativity has reported the effect of the
age of L2 acquisition on bilinguals’ performance.
These findings can be explained by a possible effect
of the age of L2 acquisition on the structure and/or
functioning in the bilingual system as suggested by a
number of studies examining the neural underpinnings of
bilingual representations (e.g., Dehaene, Dupoux, Mehler,
Cohen, Paulesu, Perani, van de Moortele, Lehericy and
Le Bihan, 1997; Kim, Relkin, Lee and Hirsch, 1997).
Kharkhurin (2007) interprets the modifications of the
bilingual system as facilitatory to the LMCA. Individuals
who acquired both of their languages early in life may
develop a greater sensitivity to underlying concepts and
more refined connections between lexical and conceptual
representations for both languages. The memory system in
early bilinguals might foster the LMCA by providing fast

Bilinguals’ divergent thinking
routing of information exchange between both lexicons
and concepts. On the other hand, late bilinguals may
develop an asymmetry in lexical access (see Kroll and
De Groot, 1997, for detailed discussion), with fewer
shared conceptual features having direct links from
both lexicons. The asymmetrical routing in the lexical–
conceptual network may result in a less efficient LMCA.
Cross-language priming studies support this notion (e.g.,
Izura and Ellis, 2004; Silverberg and Samuel, 2004).
For example, Silverberg and Samuel demonstrated that
early and late bilinguals showed different patterns of
performance in the bilingual lexical decision priming
study. In this study, semantic and mediated form
primes produced priming effects for bilinguals who
acquired their L2 early, but not for those who acquired
L2 late.
Thus, the present study proposes that the age of
L2 acquisition might have an influence on bilinguals’
LMCA. Specifically, due to a more symmetrical
distribution of lexical–conceptual routes, more conceptual
representations become readily available for the LMCA in
early bilinguals. Note that both traits, facilitated by the age
of L2 acquisition, address the capacity to rapidly produce
a large number of ideas and strategies to solve a problem.
This ability, similar to elaboration in divergent thinking,
may be facilitated by establishing multiple links between
unrelated concepts from distant categories. Therefore,
early bilinguals with a larger span of available conceptual
representations may show greater fluency and flexibility in
divergent thinking compared with bilinguals who acquired
L2 later in life.
Length of exposure to the new cultural environment
In addition to the developmental factors resulting from the
cross-linguistic experience, the present study examines
the possible effects on bilinguals’ divergent thinking
of their exposure to a new cultural environment. A
well-known problem in the psychological research on
biculturalism is that cultural experience is not only
extremely difficult to define, but even more difficult
to measure and relate to the individual’s cognitive
functioning (Francis, 2000). As mentioned earlier,
research on acculturation extracts at least two indicators
of exposure to a new cultural environment: the age of
arrival to and the length of residence in a new country.
Kharkhurin (in press) combined both factors into one
variable, the cultural exposure coefficient (similar to
Marin et al., 1987; and Tropp, Erkut, Coll, Alarcon
and Garcia, 1999), which was computed by dividing the
absolute value of the difference between the number of
years a participant lived in Russia (obtained from the
age of immigration) and the number of years they lived
in the USA (obtained from the length of residence in
the USA) by the participant’s age. That study revealed

237

that the cultural exposure coefficient had no significant
effect on divergent thinking performance. The present
study considers these factors separately and reveals that
the length of residence in a new cultural environment
relates to bilinguals’ performance on fluency, flexibility,
and elaboration in divergent thinking.
Needless to say, using these factors degrades the
psychological effects of acculturation as they cannot and
should not be reduced to measures of the exposure to
a cultural environment. As Tropp and her colleagues
(1999) argue, mere cultural exposure does not necessarily
reflect the psychological ramifications of that experience.
For example, some individuals may live in the USA
throughout their lives without feeling a strong connection
to it and may, in turn, be less likely to embrace North
American cultural norms and expectations. Conversely,
some recent immigrants may identify strongly with
prevailing American norms and standards and may
therefore attempt to integrate aspects of North American
culture into their daily lives. Although the present study
acknowledges these limitations, it makes an attempt to
relate the experience with a new cultural environment
to individuals’ cognitive functioning. Certainly, further
research is needed to investigate the possible interactions
of these two phenomena.
The finding of the positive correlation between the
length of exposure to a new culture and bilinguals’
divergent thinking performance hints to the possibility
that this exposure may result in modifications in the
bilingual conceptual system that reflects cross-cultural
diversity in conceptual representations. In this respect,
Pavlenko (2005) suggests that the conceptual systems
of two individuals who speak different languages and
participate in different cultures may differ in particular
domains where concepts are encoded – lexically or
morphosyntactically – in different ways. Russians in
Russia, for example, will interpret an event in light of
conceptual representations developed in Russian “ways
of thinking”, while North Americans will have another
interpretation of the same event in accordance with
American ways of thinking. At the same time, Russian
immigrants in North America may establish different
interpretations depending on the degree of acculturation
into the new culture, i.e., the extent to which they have
been exposed to the new culture and have adopted new
values relative to old ones. Similarly, Ervin-Tripp (2000)
argues that the experience of bilinguals varies depending
on their isolation or participation in the new culture as well
as in a bilingual community. The structure of bilinguals’
cognitive system is modified as a result of this experience
and cannot be simply matched to the monolingual one.
De Groot (2000) illustrates this with the example of a
turkey. The conceptual features of a “turkey” in nonNorth American culture-specific conceptual system may
have no associations with great festivities taking place

238

Anatoliy V. Kharkhurin

only in North America. For newcomers to North America
the concept of “thanksgiving” develops over a series
of Thanksgiving experiences which include turkey as a
key attribute of the feast. As a result, the conceptual
representation of a turkey may change over time as
a function of the experience with the L2 culture. In
particular, the conceptual representation of a turkey may
become extended once it includes additional celebrationrelated features. The extended conceptual system in turn
may result in a larger span of concepts simultaneously
activated, because the new conceptual representation may
establish new links to the concepts that were previously
unrelated. For example, the conceptual representation of
a turkey in a Russian–English bilingual may activate
festivity-related conceptual features in addition to the
typical Russian poultry-related ones. The ability to
establish links between different, often unrelated concepts
is considered a key attribute of divergent thinking.
Thus, experience with new cultural settings may have
an impact on bilinguals’ divergent thinking. Indeed,
as a number of scholars suggest, bilingual individuals
who experience and participate in two cultures may
well perceive the world through the amalgam of two
different conceptual prisms and view events with a
wider range of enriched experiences (e.g., Cummins and
Gulutsan, 1974; Okoh, 1980). Alternatively, non-standard
perspectives may promote novel and creative ways of
encoding experience.

The confounding nature of bilingual developmental
factors
This study provides evidence that it is methodologically
essential to recognize the confounding nature of
various factors in individuals’ cross-linguistic and crosscultural development. The study demonstrates the close
relationship between participants’ age of acquisition of
a new language, the rate of exposure to the cultural
environment of that language, and success in the
acquisition of this language. First, the participants’ age
of learning English was found to relate to their mastery of
linguistic skills in this language. Bilinguals who learned
English earlier in life seem to develop greater English
proficiency. This finding lends support to the discussion in
the language acquisition literature that language learning
abilities decline with age (e.g., Lenneberg, 1967; Krashen,
1973; Pinker, 1994). Most of these studies converge on
the prediction of Lenneberg’s critical period hypothesis
that L2 acquisition will be relatively fast, successful, and
qualitatively similar to L1 only if it occurs before the
age of puberty. This prediction is still debatable since
there is no agreement about whether there is a cut-off
point at which language-learning performance decreases
dramatically. However, the investigation of the specific

critical period for language acquisition is beyond the scope
of the present research.
Second, the participants’ age of arrival in the USA
and the length of their residence in this country were also
found to relate to their mastery of English. Individuals who
were exposed to the American cultural environment earlier
and for a longer time tended to show greater linguistic
skills in English. This finding overlaps with the prediction
of the acculturation studies that show that successful
language acquisition goes hand in hand with cultural
adaptation (e.g., Gordon, 1964; Birman et al., 2002). More
extensive exposure to the L2 cultural environment is likely
to result in a greater rate of acculturation, which may
indirectly facilitate L2 acquisition. Johnson and Newport
(1989) provide evidence supporting the indirect influence
of exposure to new cultural settings on linguistic skills.
They tested native Korean and Chinese speakers who
had arrived in the USA between ages 3 and 39 years
old, and who had lived in the USA between 3 and
26 years at the time of testing. The results indicated
that early arrivals performed significantly better on an
English grammaticality judgment task than late arrivals.
Moreover, the test performance of early arrivals was
linearly related to their age of arrival whereas late arrivals’
performance was highly variable and unrelated to their age
of arrival.
The above discussion illustrates that the various factors
of bilingual cross-linguistic and cross-cultural practices
are intimately intertwined. An important conclusion
that can be advanced from this discussion is that in
addition to assessment of linguistic aptitude, bilingualism
research should systematically control for the age of initial
exposure to a new language, duration and circumstances
of that exposure, and the sociocultural experience of
participants. Without providing a careful assessment
of these parameters, researchers are likely to overlook
important aspects of bilingual development, aspects
that may potentially have an important influence on
individuals’ linguistic and cognitive performance.
Conclusion
This study explored several research questions pertinent
to the influence of bilingual development on individuals’
divergent thinking. First, while bilinguals show
superiority on those divergent thinking tasks that refer
to the capacity to rapidly produce a large number of
ideas and to think through the details of an idea and
carry it out, they did not demonstrate that superiority
on the test where the ability to produce unique and
original ideas was measured. This finding indicates that
being bilingual does not necessary imply being creative,
but rather that the positive effect of bilingualism on
creative abilities is likely to be limited to unconscious
automatic cognitive processing, which lays the foundation

Bilinguals’ divergent thinking
of more sophisticated processing during which truly
creative ideas may be generated. The effectiveness of the
latter cognitive processes, however, might be influenced
by various developmental and personality factors not
accounted for by bilingualism.
Second, depending on their history of bilingual
development, different types of bilinguals show different
patterns of divergent thinking performance. These
differences could be explained by the facilitatory
effect of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural factors in
bilingual development. Bilinguals’ age of L2 acquisition,
linguistic fluency, and length of exposure to L2
cultural environments are suggested to influence the
communication links in bilingual memory, which in turn
may enhance the effectiveness of language mediated
concept activation. However, further research is required
to examine the hypothesis that due to variations in the
rate of language mediated concept activation different
types of bilinguals exhibit different patterns of divergent
thinking.
Third, the study provides evidence of the interlacing
nature of the various factors in bilingual development.
This finding lends support to the appealing argument
in the literature that bilingualism should be studied not
only in the context of individuals’ linguistic abilities,
but also in a sociocultural context. In studying the
psychological effects of bilingualism, the time and
circumstances of individuals’ experiences with different
languages and sociocultural settings should be carefully
examined. In particular, the peculiarities of the cultural
environments to which an individual is exposed should
be taken into account. In this regard, a question
that needs to be answered is what sociocultural cues
might have an effect on the conceptual changes that
presumably influence individual’s cognitive capacities.
The psychological ramifications of experience with two
sets of cultural settings on individuals’ behavior and the
impact of cross-cultural experiences on their conceptual
system opens a new line of research on biculturalism that
should bring together the joint efforts of cognitive and
social psychologists. Moreover, to ignore this combination
of linguistic and sociocultural factors would degrade
psychological research. In this respect, it is important
to develop a solid methodology assessing the cognitive
implications of biculturalism. There is a need for a
reliable measure of cognitive processes that are influenced
by cross-cultural experiences and which accounts for
variations in individuals’ cognitive capacities.
Finally, this study also lends indirect support to
the creative cognition approach. On the one hand,
bilinguals seem to utilize the same cognitive mechanisms
of concept formation and lexical access that are used
by all people. On the other, they tend to show
greater divergent thinking abilities. Thus, the “mundane”
cognitive functioning enhanced in the process of bilingual

239

development may contribute positively to individuals’
creativity.

Appendix A. Biographical Questionnaire and
Bilingual Balance Scale
Name
Subject number
Phone
E-mail
Age
Gender
Date of birth
Place of birth
How old were you when you came to the USA?
How many years have you lived in the USA?

Education
Russia
Secondary school (put N/A if you didn’t attend it)
How many years?
What other language(s) did you learn there? (check
appropriate)
English
German
French
Spanish
Other (specify)
Was it a special language school? (circle one)Yes | No
University (put N/A if you didn’t attend it)
What was the name of the University?
How many years?
What other language(s) did you learn there? (check
appropriate)
English
German
French
Spanish
Other (specify)
Did you take an advanced language class? (circle one)
Yes | No
USA
High school (put N/A if you didn’t attend it)
What was the name of the school?
How many years?
What other language(s) did you learn there? (check
appropriate)
English
German
French
Spanish
Other (specify)

240

Anatoliy V. Kharkhurin

What language(s) did you speak at school (outside the
classroom, with your classmates)? (circle one)
Russian
English
both
College (put N/A if you didn’t attend it)
What is (was) the name of the college?
How many years?
What other language(s) did you learn there? (check
appropriate)
English
German
French
Spanish
Other (specify)
What language(s) do you speak in college (outside the
classroom, with your classmates)? (circle one)
Russian
English
both
Language proficiency
How old were you when you began to learn Russian?
In what country did you begin to learn Russian?
Where did you learn Russian? (circle one) Home | School
both
How old were you when you began to learn English?
In what country did you begin to learn English?
Where did you learn English? (circle one) Home | School
both
At what age did your usage of English begin to exceed
the usage of Russian (i.e., age at which you started to use
English more than 50% of the time)?
Are you right- or left-handed? (circle one) Right | Left
both
If you are right-handed, were you forced to use the right
hand? (circle one) Yes | No

How well do you
read in English?
How well do you
write in English?

not at all

fair

well

very well

not at all

fair

well

very well

Do you think you
speak English with
accent?

strong

moderate

How well do you
understand spoken
Russian?
How well do you
speak Russian?
How well do you
read in Russian?
How well do you
write in Russian?

not at all

fair

well

very well

not at all

fair

well

very well

not at all

fair

well

very well

not at all

fair

well

very well

Do you think you
speak Russian with
accent?

strong

no accent at
all (like
American)

Russian

moderate

no accent at
all

What other language(s) do you speak?
Rate your language command from 0 (not at all) to 3 (very
well) for each language in the table below.

How would you estimate your ability to learn foreign
languages? (circle one)
can’t learn at all difficult fairly quickly very easy

Standard scores
Did you take the TOEFL? (circle one) Yes | No
if YES, what was your score (computer/paper based)?
Did you take the SAT? (circle one) Yes | No
if YES, what was your verbal English score?
Self-rating
In the questions 1 through 10, circle the word or a phrase
that applies to you.
English
How well do you
understand spoken
English?
How well do you
speak English?

Home and friends
What language(s) do you speak at home?
What percent of each language do you use at home?
English Russian Other
What language(s) do you speak with your friends?
What percent of each language do you use with your
friends? English Russian Other

Bilingual Balance Scale
not at all

fair

well

very well

not at all

fair

well

very well

Check the box that reflects your degree of Russian–
English bilingualism. Ignore any other language you may
speak.

Bilinguals’ divergent thinking
Appendix B. Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults
(a) Stimuli for Activity 2

(b) Stimuli for Activity 3

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Received November 6, 2006
Revision received March 25, 2007
Accepted April 16, 2007

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